Civil War News Review

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

            Erich Maria Remarque, in the forward to his life changing All Quiet on the Western Front, wrote:

This book is to be neither an accusation, nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure for those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men, who even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

                Critics have sometimes complained about the vivid portrayal of combat in my books and the lack of critical analysis in my works. I am a reporter, a crime scene investigator who collects evidence, presents it as honestly and as vividly as possible, and lets the readers draw their own conclusions. I do not think like a general. I am a lousy chess player. I write to capture the myopic, narrowly focused perspective of war through the eyes of the men who did the killing and dying. There is nothing romantic or heroic about either. It is brutal, vicious, and often senseless.

            During the centennial of the Great War, I think it is time to dust off the works of Erich Remarque, Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sassoon, Alan Seeger, and Isaac Rosenberg  and read them in a dark corner of a dreary room and take the time to silently weep and pray for those who perished and those  who unrelentingly relived the war in their nightmares.

            As I walk the fields of Antietam, I often reflect sadly upon the similarity between the apocalyptic destruction of the Western Front and that of a Civil War battlefield.  During the battle, for instance, at the Bloody Lane, the adjutant of the 5th New Hampshire had to pull his men off a dead rebel hanging on the top fence rail on the southern side of the road. The poor fellow had at least 40 bayonet and bullet holes in him. Think about it. Somebody bothered to count them. Similarly, Adjutant Hermann Haase (49th New York) died on May 12, 1864 front of the Bloody Angle, riddled by some 32 rifle balls. Again, somebody has ghoulishly counted them.

            After the rebels overran the West Woods at Antietam, they callously bayoneted or shot a large number of the wounded Yankees. At the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, a Confederate sharpshooter tied the corpse of a dead comrade upright against a tree, before perching himself in the branches over head. The Yankees repeatedly shot the dead man, thinking him to be the sniper firing into their ranks.

            At Fredericksburg and at the eastern end of the Bloody Lane, Union soldiers protected themselves from incoming fire by stacking the dead in front of them. At Fredericksburg, they used their own dead and at Antietam, dead Confederates.

            The Poilu (French soldiers) during World War I responded to photographers with “Go ahead. Take a picture of the dead.” Alan Seeger, while serving with the French penned his fatalistic, “I Have Rendezvous With Death.” He died in the wire in 1916. A little over 50 years earlier, the soldiers of both armies went into battle with their weapons at “right shoulder shift” and leaning forward into the incoming rounds, hoping to get hit in the head to avoid the surgeons’ tables. In the trenches of Petersburg, exhausted soldiers deliberately stood atop the trench parapets inviting death as a sharpshooter’s hand. 

            It was not so much death before dishonor as it was an inevitable fact. When Wilfred Owen wrote:

 If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
 Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
 Bitter as the cud
 Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
 To children ardent for some desperate glory,
 The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
 Pro patria mori. 

            He spoke for the thousands upon thousands of soldiers who had preceded him who could not escape their wars and who often questioned whether, “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.”

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